Navigating the Choppy Waters of Mental Illness at Work

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Mental Illness is highly prevalent in our society - 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, and 20% will suffer from mental health issues during any given year. 

Given these statistics, employers will likely deal with at least a few employees who have mental health issues annually. 

So, what is expected of an employer in this situation? 

understanding mental illness

The first step is to understand that there are many types of mental illness. Depression and anxiety are very common, and fall into the category of mood disorders. Other types of mental illness include personality disorders or psychotic disorders, amongst others. 

Generally speaking, a person getting appropriate treatment for a mental illness can be an active contributor in the workforce and the community, and the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness do not pose any risk to others. 

A mental illness may develop separately from the workplace, for example due to issues stemming from the sufferer's personal life. However, the average employee loses 3.2 work days per year due to the impact of dealing with workplace stress - so it is clear that the workplace can be a significant contributing factor in mental health issues. 

managing the contributing factors at work

An employer has a duty of care to ensure that the workplace is safe and healthy for employees. Employers need to identify workplace practices or actions which could cause or contribute to mental illness, and eliminate or significantly reduce the risks associated with these. 

This includes preventing bullying or harassing behaviours, ensuring that managerial staff are trained in properly dealing with performance management and with staff who are experiencing mental health issues, and even limiting situations where excessive alcohol use may be encouraged.

supporting workers who disclose a mental illness

Employers should take steps to ensure that those workers who are suffering with their mental health have access to appropriate resources, including flexibility to attend medical appointments, ease in accessing days off when necessary, and perhaps in-house counselling sessions or a mentoring program. 

When dealing with an employee who has reported their mental illness, employers should be prepared to ask questions such as: 

  • How can we help?
  • How can we make you feel more supported?
  • What are your triggers and how can we manage these in the workplace?
  • Are you coping, and if not, what strategies can we implement to help you stay on top of things?

From a legal perspective, an employer is also required to ensure that workers are not discriminated against or subjected to any adverse action because of their mental health status.

what happens if a worker doesn't disclose? 

In developing a strategy for dealing with mental health issues in the workplace, employers should consider how they can encourage workers to be comfortable in disclosing their status. This will require members of the HR team to be equipped with the skills to ask the right questions. 

Employers can also inform staff who they suspect may be struggling with their mental health about an option to seek confidential support for an Employer Assistance Program or external professional advisor.

In circumstances where an employer is concerned about a worker who is displaying symptoms of mental illness but has not disclosed any conditions, the supervisor should be appropriately trained and prepared to open a dialogue with the employee. 

Alternatively, an employer could monitor data such as employee workload, unexplained absences or lack of productivity, and seek the employee's consent to obtain medical information. Armed with this information, an employer can create a flexible environment within which each worker can be encouraged to perform at their best. 

protecting all employees

It is incumbent on employers to remember that they must balance the potential risks to all of their employees. 

Although they cannot discuss an employee's mental health status, if the employer is genuinely concerned about the potential impact on colleagues or the business itself, appropriate steps can be taken to performance manage or otherwise discipline the employee. 

However, in taking such action, it is crucial for an employer to ensure that it is poor performance or risky behaviour which is managed or disciplined, and that the worker concerned is not discriminated against on the grounds of their mental health status. 

Employers should also consider developing a mental health policy. This document can be used to demonstrate that all staff are entitled to confidential support free from discrimination, harassment or bullying, regardless of their mental health status. 

It can also be used to demonstrate that staff who are acting inappropriately in the workplace cannot simply rely on their mental illness as an excuse to endanger themselves or others on an ongoing basis. 

Key issues which should be address in the policy include: 

  • Access to confidential support and consultation for all staff
  •  Anti-harassment and bullying protocols
  • Policies and procedures relating to reasonable adjustments which may be required to assist staff with a mental illness
  • Identification of risks in the workplace and strategies for minimising the potential impact on staff if they are exposed to those risks (such as a death, or trauma in the workplace)

How can we help

Navigating your way to a mentally healthy workplace isn't easy. If you'd like assistance in encouraging a supportive work environment in your organisation, including drafting mental health and anti-bullying policies and creating appropriate performance management programs, contact us

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